lake street usa/wing young huie

Stories and Moments: Wing Young Huie’s Lake Street USA

The most important thing to understand about Minneapolis’s Lake Street is that it’s a transportation corridor and always has been. Very few people actually have home addresses on Lake. Instead, they use it to get from one place to another. Those places might be from home to work, from work to play, from friend to friend. Besides providing a means of physical mobility, Lake Street has also become a site of social mobility: a corridor from just scraping by to a steady income, from recent arrival to settled in, from down on your luck to a step in the right direction. Lake Street is the great entrepreneurial zone of Minneapolis, not of corporate mergers but of moving forward into the American dream, whether that dream be of upward mobility, individual liberty, or religious freedom. Lake Street as corridor epitomizes one of the great truisms of America: we’re a state of perpetual movement, of a self becoming a new self, a culture becoming a new culture, a moment waiting to become the next. We love cars, we love moving, we love going from one end of Lake Street to the other just to do it, just to enter that corridor of moments and know that one of the outcomes of freedom is change.

Surrounding and structuring this corridor is the Lake Street of contemporary American urban politics. There is a city government with a strong sense of controlled urban planning. There is a crucial mass transit system and powerful police presence. There are neighborhood organizations, each with different ideas of needs and positive outcomes. There are businesses large and small. Less visible but no less powerful are the ethnic loyalties that bring Hmong or Mexican or Somali services into geographical proximity and voting blocs. In many ways, Lake Street a classic story about the ways American power sharing provides for both stability and change, each concentration of power playing its role, each knowing its place.

Like Lake Street itself, Wing Young Huie’s Lake Street USA is a blend of interlocking stories and anarchic moments, tradition and change, group dynamics and unpredictable individualism. Combining the expressiveness and cooperation of the people on the street with the support of cultural institutions and small businesses, Huie has reshaped the 24x7 movement of a diverse urban corridor into a complex representational unity. The fragile glue that holds Lake Street USA together is a shared notion that everyone has a stake in their own representation, something important to say about life on Lake, something to contribute to the larger picture of what it means to live an American life. At the heart of that notion is Wing Young Huie and a way of making photographs that follows stories into moments and human relations into individual destinies.

In some ways, Wing Huie doesn’t have a working method; instead he has hundreds of stories. Here’s one of the first stories of Lake Street USA: I moved to Powderhorn just off lake street in 1996. January first I was out with my camera on 15th and Lake and this man says, “Hey take my picture!” He jumps up on a mailbox. We started talking and he told me his name was Psycho. That was the name the police had given him. He introduced me to several people on the street, though they basically didn’t want me to photograph them. I did get a picture of Psycho and his girlfriend. When I met Psycho again he took me to his mother’s and I photographed her. She had several children including a daughter whose son had committed suicide. A little later I ran into Psycho’s mom and she invited me to come to Phillipi church and photograph the congregation. Psycho was arrested a few months ago and is now in prison, but I still run into his mom, who tells me he’s doing fine.

The shorthand narrative of this story might read: Huie moves to a neighborhood, walks around with his camera, asks to photograph people, gets to know them, they introduce him to other people, he makes their photographs etc. One picture leads to another. Following the winding stories and relationships between Huie’s photographs is a way of contacting the complicated and mysterious way he transforms an unknown social entity into a community of the imagination. It’s also how a single idea becomes thousands of negatives, six hundred prints, a six-mile-long exhibition, and an endlessly transforming web site.

Huie’s story also suggests something about the nature of the photograph. John Szarkowski once wrote: “The photograph is the only representation to record the exact time it took to make.” But the real question is how long do photographs take to make? Huie’s stories suggest that his pictures take a lot longer than the 1/125 second that the camera shutter is open. If we include the social dynamics surrounding the actual exposure, some of Huie’s photographs took hours, days, and even weeks to materialize. This concept of photographic making—that a photographic engagement includes a before and after—is the cornerstone of Huie’s achievement in Lake Street USA. It demands patience, faith in the process, and a deep commitment to the ability of his subjects to positively influence the shape of his work. Huie’s collaborations aren’t really a technique, rather they’re an attitude toward people, a combination of respect and honesty that his subjects understand and reflect. In some ways, Huie’s subjects are what Huie’s process has suggested they might be: part of a shared social narrative, the representational equivalent of the social hope found on Lake Street.

But it would be a mistake to think that Huie’s photographs are simply the stories leading him from one person to another. The fact is that within each of these stories there are photographic moments, split seconds that carry most of the representational weight. The tension between story and moment, preparation and event, life and art, is what makes Huie’s photographs more than repetitions of conventional media representations. The moment gives Huie and his subjects the opportunity to intervene and interrupt stories, in effect separating themselves from the social network that brought them together in the first place. Wrestling over that moment with Huie is what transforms social subjects playing scripted roles into individuals jumping on top of mailboxes. It’s like watching stereotypes shade off into people we’ve never seen before, over-determined media destinies exploding into crazy liberty for-its-own-sake. In their generosity and understanding of the moment, Huie and his subjects betray a profound faith in other people—to understand who they are, to accept their similarities or their difference, and to integrate their moments of vision into new stories of how America might be.

Huie has honored and reinforced that faith in the viewer with a faith in Lake Street itself, not only as a place to photograph, but as an exhibition site. Spending months talking to store owners, developers, and city officials, Huie, his Project Coordinator Alison Ziegler, and their band of volunteers hung over 650 photographs in every possible store front window, from Annie’s Hair Salon to White Castle, from Midas Muffler to Molly Quinns. Running for six miles and open 24 hours a day, everyday, Lake Street USA the exhibition is part of the street itself. Besides bringing representational and real Lake Streets into a single experience, Huie’s street-level exhibition maintains its community roots and ideals. If we want to see what Huie and his subjects created on and around Lake Street we have to travel to Lake Street and if we do, we become part of their story. Simple but effective, calling for the community to once again help in realizing its own representation, Lake Street USA leverages the idea of the exhibition into the act of a community contributing to its own representation.

If Lake Street USA the exhibition depends on the meaning generated by a single photograph occupying a single location, Lake Street USA the web site embraces the fluidity and immateriality of digital media. On the most basic level, the web site explodes the extreme site specificity of the exhibition into the global network of the Web, dramatically expanding the audience. But in addition, web viewers can move from a picture in Uptown to one in Longfellow, approximately six miles away, in a mouse click. They can write comments with individual photographs, set up their own exhibition, or even “borrow” a photograph and send it to a friend via email. It would be difficult to find a richer comparison of the strengths of both photo-chemical and digital photography, what each can and cannot accomplish. Seen as parts of the same whole, they combine the dense contextual stories of site specificity with the one-on-one expanded-function moments of electronic viewing.

It’s easy to think that Wing Young Huie has documented the residents of Lake Street. But Lake Street USA is something more. It’s the story of how one photographer gathered all the constituents of an unidentified whole into a joint venture. It’s the moment of that venture becoming a community: identifying itself, becoming conscious of itself, representing itself. For better or worse, Lake Street can never be the same. But in some ways Lake Street USA is nothing more or less than what Wing Young Huie and his subjects came to understand about what it meant to be photographed in a particular place. Out of that understanding they created something all their own, a six-mile-long strip of never-ending stories, 650 moments of freedom, world-wide access to one America on its way to becoming another America.